The Popularity of Post-Yugoslav Literature? What is That?

/ by Vladimir Arsenić

At the end of April, in the region of former Yugoslavia, the season of literary festivals begins. It lasts almost till the beginning of October, and consists of numerous events: Podgorica, Bijelo Polje, Virpazar, Skopje, Priština, Užice, Beograd, Novi Sad, Kikinda, Tuzla, Sarajevo, Mostar, Split, Šibenik, Zadar, Rijeka, Umag, Zagreb, Osijek, Vilenica, to name some towns that host literary festivals, and those are just the biggest ones, with recognizable names and distinguished programs. This far from full list includes twenty cities, some of them including not with one but three or four events. Do we really need that much? This question could be divided in two: do we have an audience big enough to devour that many cultural events and, equally important, do we, in Post-Yugoslav literature, have the production to cover such a number of festivals. And, last but not least, the question of “culture-tainment” (culture + entertainment) should be raised. The fact stands that literature is changing, but is this change good or bad for the art itself?

There is a controversy regarding the audience of Post-Yugoslav literature, meaning that sometimes it is much bigger than one presumes, and sometimes it is much smaller. For instance, a big festival such as Krokodil in the biggest city in the region, Belgrade, stands at about 800 visitors per night. And it is a great result. But in such a big city, it is much less impressive a relative number than the 200 visitors in Kikinda or Šibenik, which are far smaller towns. In other words, statistics and percentages are deceitful, because Kikindashort festival or Fališ are the main events of town’s cultural offering during the year, while the European short story festival is simply one festival among many in Zagreb. And the impact of the festival is rather more visible in small towns than in big cities. In Zadar, for instance, the whole town is involved in production of Kalibar, while in Novi Sad, nobody cares about another festival of literature. The other important question is whether a literary festival broadens and enlarges the general audience, i.e. does the success of a festival help raise the number of books sold? And there is a catch. No festival has boosted the publishing industry, aside from maybe FAK at the beginning of the 21st century in Croatia, and in Bosnia and Serbia respectfully, but it had ended with a crash. The market collapsed and all that we are left with are the festivals, which is not necessarily bad.

Post-Yugoslav literature is rather small. It has, in an ideal world in which everyone’s reading, no more than 20 million readers. But, in reality, the number is incomparably smaller. It does not go over 100,000 interested persons. In that kind of small market, the production of valuable literature is also relatively low. That is why repetition is inevitable. You will meet a lot of the same writers, critics, publishers, editors, translators, and agents at many festivals. Some of us were guests or hosts or both at the majority of them, talking of same things to different people with similar impact. Most of the time, one feels as though one belongs to a small therapy group of people who think the same, more or less, and when we are together, just like at the AA meetings, at our closed sessions, we hold hands and breathe deeply, quietly saying “OM.” We are happy when we finish, we feel relieved, but the real impact on the broader audience is almost invisible. We will always agree on the importance of literature in the process of reconciliation, we will tell tales of literature sans frontiers, of our love, understanding and bonding, but in reality those are the same people, we all know each other, we are friends, we don’t need to persuade each other of obvious things. The question is how to get out of that vicious circle, how to really do something with literature, is this possible at all, or are we confined to courting each other and patting one another’s shoulders, to keep saying that everything is going to be alright.

Out of that question of impact, of influence, comes the notion of culture-tainment. How to present something that is as basically time-consuming, self-sufficient and possibly boring as literature to broader audience? Let’s mix it with music, with stand-up, with all kinds of live acts, on the flash-lit flamboyant stage with sponsors and some corporate conscience-cleaning campaign for disabled persons or raising awareness of breast cancer or something similar. It all looks nice, the audience is really enjoying themselves, the sponsors are happy, the money is raised, but what about literature itself? The art that was always for the lonely reader who sits in some easy chair or armchair, or lies on a sofa with a cup of coffee and reads the words that are meant only for her or for him, how can this reader share, how can this reader enjoy? The other side of the medal is the question of authors, who are well aware of the conditions in which their art is going to be presented or perceived, and they are counting in advance on that. Is this a betrayal of one’s own artistry? Is that some kind of concession in advance, some kind of counting on before time? If that is true, then we are in the age of radical changes that need to be accepted. And literature will never be the same again. Whether it is good or bad, only time will tell. The festivals are obviously here to stay, so enjoy them while we can. We most certainly can’t beat them.

Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal and He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum,, He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into albanian and slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC.